A few years ago, a good friend (thanks, Tom!) recommended the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. I read a lot of business books that would put most of the population to sleep. Everyone once in awhile, though, you find a gem that would be fun and informative for everyone.
When I find those, I try to remember to stick them in the Books section of this blog. Made to Stick definitely makes that list.
The Curse of Knowledge
One of the book’s sections talks about “The Curse of Knowledge.”
In a nutshell: The more expertise you gain in a topic, the harder it is for you to remember what it was like to know very little about that topic. Therefore, conveying anything useful on that topic to laymen (fellow team members, for example) becomes difficult.
If you need a touch more background, the guys at 37 Signals have a good post that does it quick justice: The Curse of Knowledge.
I developed a natural resistance to “The Curse of Knowledge” early on. I guess there’s a part of me that just enjoys the mentoring process. Not saying I do that purely from a Mother Theresa perspective, either. I believe that great teams arise when all members see the value in raising the skills and knowledge of all other members. And hey, if you can create such a culture, the benefits will eventually go both ways!
For example: I’ve always been good at math. After exhausting the math curriculum at my small Hoosier high school, I had to spend half a day at the larger, neighboring school in my Junior and Senior years. I’d already been through Calculus when most of my classmates were starting the highest math they’d ever see, Algebra. I started tutoring a few of them. I was immediately able to put myself back in their shoes… back to a time when I didn’t know that “x” (the variable) could represent any number.
In college, I got into some really hairy subjects like Advanced Differential Equations and Control Theory. Even as I engaged in the increasingly arcane levels of math (now, what the hell is a Nyquist plot again?), I continued to pull in sweet cash by tutoring high school students in basic math. Plenty of my college mates had already been infected with The Curse of Knowledge by that point. They just couldn’t get back into the shoes of a struggling 9th grader.
That mentality is rampant in engineering circles. It’s one of the reasons people at dinner parties cringe after asking, “What do you do?” and hearing, “I’m an Engineer.” The ability to shed this curse is also one of the qualities that will propel certain engineers into greater roles of leadership and responsibility.
The Curse of Egocentricity
(Sometimes referred to as “The Curse of Being a Blindered, Close-Minded Asshole.”)
I just made up that term. It describes a related quality that often afflicts people suffering from The Curse of Knowledge. In addition to the inability to convey the idea of some mastered skill, the sufferer also expects any layman to easily adopt that skill.
I routinely hear examples of this curse when CAD users expect everyone to just “pick up” a SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER, or NX and be productive.
In CAE circles, for example, you’ll often find highly skilled Masters and PhD simulation experts whose biggest bottleneck is finding someone to “clean up” incoming CAD geometry prior to analysis. I’ve been in company meetings meant to address this issue where a CAD user says, “Ah, come on… you guys are being silly. If you’d just learn a little about our CAD tool, you’d be fine.”
That’s met with a horrified silence from the CAE experts. The CAD user typically misses those facial cues and plows ahead: “Look, just walk through some the tutorials, maybe read a book, watch some online videos, and you’ll be up and running in no time.”
The same thing happens when companies are trying to figure out why so many intelligent, experienced, high-value engineers don’t participate in the 3D conceptual phase of product development. “Uh, because we’re never going to use a CAD tool for 60 hours per week (for a year) in order to maintain some level of CAD expertise. We have bigger issues to think about.”
There’s always at least one CAD user in the meeting who pipes up with, “Ah come on guys, you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. I can make anything I want in Inventor- and I’m not a full time draftsman.”
Now, I’m a software jockey. I can pretty much figure out how to make any tool work. Photoshop, Video Editing, SaaS CRM, WordPress, CAD… you name it, I can learn it if necessary. But I also know that many of my most brilliant mentors and colleagues do NOT have that ability.
For example, my Mother in Law is one of the kindest, most insightfully creative humans on the planet. We gave her a Flip Mino video camera for Christmas last year. Very simple device featuring a flip-out USB connector that plugs right into her laptop. It came with its own (very basic) video editing software suite. You know what? That’s the perfect tool for her. It would be insane (and in fact counterproductive) for me to push her to a professional tool like Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas. I certainly don’t think she is less valuable because those tools don’t suit her.
In wrapping up this rant, I’d suggest two action items for all of you:
- Do some soul searching and discover if you are personally stricken with either curse.
- Learn to recognize when these curses are influencing important team decisions.